Choosing a Psychology
Graduate Degree
A Guide to Psychology Specializations and Graduate Programs

Psychology focuses on the mind and behavior, and how factors like culture, society and the economy affect individuals and groups of people. While careers in psychology vary from direct service roles to research and academic positions, those with a graduate degree in psychology are better able to pursue specific licenses and practice in their chosen field. The following guide reviews the various degree paths and tips for finding the right program, highlights prospective careers and provides insider knowledge from a working psychology graduate.

Meet the Expert
Frank Healy Read More

Find the Right Psychology Graduate Degree Concentration

The types of psychology graduate degrees available are as unique as the individuals they intend to serve, with specialized programs available to students hoping to work in various areas. Whether planning to complete a master’s or doctorate level degree, the following programs are well-matched to a spectrum of research areas and interests.

MS in Clinical Psychology

Students interested in the science behind human behaviors and psychiatric issues are drawn to clinical psychology programs, which emphasize studies in the theories behind mental illnesses, deviance, psychiatric issues, and abnormal behavior. Graduates can be found in healthcare facilities, governmental agencies, and university settings.

MS in Counseling Psychology

Students aspiring to administer therapies to patients often take this path, which provides an in-depth study of the psychological and behavioral theories needed to treat clients. Graduates may counsel individuals, families, children, communities, or professional groups and find work in a variety of settings, including private practice.

MS in Experimental Psychology

These programs take a macro-level look at the field of psychology, specifically understanding the basic human psychological processes of learning, memory and cognition. Much of the work is researched based, with special emphasis placed on developing skills in designing studies and using scientific methods. The majority of graduates can be found in research facilities and universities.

MS in General Psychology

GP programs instill the foundations and theoretical principles of the discipline while also teaching proper research and practice methods. Some programs allow students to specialize in a particular area, while others focus on general principles entirely. Graduates are equipped to work in governmental agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

MS in Health Psychology

Health psychologists focus on helping individuals, groups and communities live overall healthier lives by highlighting ways to improve mental health, stress, activity levels, and daily nutrition. Courses focus on these topics while also developing students’ knowledge of psychological principles and research to deliver holistic care. These professionals may work in governmental agencies, community health organizations, research agencies, or healthcare facilities.

MS in Industrial Organizational Psychology

Sitting at the crossroad of business and psychology, IOP programs prepare students to assess, identify and provide solutions for businesses. A large emphasis is placed on understanding human behavior and motivation as it relates to relationships between employers and their employees.

MS in School Psychology

With a focus on the psychiatric, behavioral, academic, and home-life issues commonly encountered by children, this degree prepares graduates to understand the cultural, social, community, and family factors that influence a child’s behavior. Graduates commonly work with other professionals in the school system to develop a holistic plan for betterment.

MS in Sport Psychology

Sports are often called a head game, and sports psychologists work with athletes to help them improve their mental performance. Students learn about theories related to intervention, motivation and performance enhancement throughout the program. The majority of graduates will work with professional athletes, college teams or as consultants to a variety of clients.

MS in Social Psychology

Providing less emphasis on direct client interfacing, social psychology programs are more concerned with understanding what drives humans in social settings. Students consider questions relating to thoughts, feelings, connections and actions between humans while also reviewing group versus individual dynamics, self-identity and the influence of power.

Doctor of Philosophy

With a focus on the research side of psychology, students enrolled in these programs work closely with academic researchers and faculty mentors to gain hands-on research experience. They learn how to develop research projects, conduct studies, collect data, and present their findings to academic and medical outlets. Some programs allow students to concentrate on a specific area of psychology.

Doctor of Psychology

Students enrolled in these programs are planning to go into professional practice, working directly with a variety of clients and providing psychotherapy. Students learn about theories and techniques in the field and how to incorporate research findings into their practice. They also have the opportunity to practice their skills under the supervision of licensed psychologists.

By The Letters: What Type of Degree Serves You?

Aside from various concentrations, psychology graduate students are also able to choose from numerous degree levels, depending on their future plans. Whether looking to move into applied psychology and work directly with patients or aspiring to work as a researcher or academic, students can scroll over the options below to learn more about advanced degree paths.

M.A.
What is it?

The Master of Arts (MA) degree provides a general overview of the field and is designed for students who plan to complete a doctoral-level program after graduation. Students learn about foundational principals relating to behavior, psychotherapy, neuroscience and development during the two-year program.

Who is it for?

Individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a liberal arts topic outside psychology typically select this degree, often with an eye toward future teaching or research roles.

Where do they work?

Research agencies, academic institutions, governmental agencies.

M.S.
What is it?

The majority of Master of Science (MS) programs require a few foundational psychology courses before allowing students to select an area of concentration, such as child development, health, education, crisis management and organizational development. The majority of programs are completed within two-years of full-time study.

Who is it for?

Students who completed an undergraduate degree in psychology who wish to specialize and move into a direct service area of psychology. Graduates in certain states are able to apply for licensure after completing this program, although there may be certain stipulations to how they are able to practice without a doctoral-level diploma.

Where do they work?

Private practice, schools, counseling centers, community agencies, federal or local agencies, healthcare facilities.

Ph.D.
What is it?

Considered one of the most prestigious degrees available, doctoral-level philosophy programs immerse students in research technique, data collection and analysis, scientific methods and project frameworks. While not discouraged, little if any focus is given to concepts of direct practice.

Who is it for?

Students on the road to a research or teaching position are frequently found in these programs. The majority don’t require master’s level degrees, as coursework is typically built into the PhD curriculum. These six-year programs are best suited for those who have no aspirations of having their own roster of patients.

Where do they work?

Research institutions, clinics, academic settings, governmental agencies.

Psy.D
What is it?

A much newer program than the PhD, PsyD programs focus on instilling skills in direct practice rather than research. Instead of completing a dissertation, students are required to undertake a set number of supervised hours and provide therapy to patients under the watchful eye of a licensed psychologist.

Who is it for?

Students who are more interested in how research can improve their practice rather than undertaking the actual research are drawn to this program, which emphasizes the skills needed to be effective practicing psychologists. These five-year programs typically draw individuals who previously completed an MS in psychology.

Where do they work?

Private practice, community centers, hospitals, government agencies, schools, counseling centers.

Psychology Graduate Degree Timeline

Whether at the point of applying or already enrolled in a program, prospective and current psychology students should keep a list of all the requirements situated between admission and graduation. Some of the biggest points on the timeline are highlighted below.

Entrance exams

The majority or programs require students to complete both the GRE and the psychology subject exam at a satisfactory level to be considered for admission, while other departments may also require a MAT score. Candidates should give themselves ample time to study for these tests, typically at least 12 weeks.

Acceptance

One of the most important steps after being accepted is finding a suitable faculty advisor, as this person will have significant input and impact on a student’s area of research, thesis and capstone project.

Thesis

Master’s level psychology students often have the option to complete either a thesis or comprehensive exams, although some departments require both. Conversely, doctoral students are expected to complete a full-length dissertation. Theses differ from dissertations in that they normally don’t require the student to complete original research. Ranging from 40-80 pages, these projects are completed during the final year of study.

Fieldwork

The majority of fieldwork placements take place at the undergraduate level, but many graduate level programs require an internship component for students to meet requirements for supervised hours. The length of these placements will vary by type and level of degree.

Financial aid

The FAFSA®, the federal government’s funding application, can be filled out on the first day of each new year, with funds awarded on a rolling basis. Aside from federal grants and loans, students should also research any potential programmatic fellowships or STEM-related scholarships.

Comprehensive exams

Comprehensive exams stand between a student and their future dissertation, requiring them to show mastery of a subject before being allowed to continue in the program. Comps are comprised of an essay component, an oral presentation and test, whether or not a student has digested course information properly throughout their program.

Capstone project

Another option often presented to graduate students is completing a capstone project, which is more experiential in nature. The overarching goal is for a student to demonstrate their ability to bring together various concepts and design an intensive project. Examples include case studies, theoretical evaluations, community engagement projects or a creative research project.

Searching for the Right Psychology Program

Once a student identifies the branch of psychology they want to pursue, the next step is finding a program matched to their criteria. Prospective programs need to check off multiple boxes relating to accreditation, faculty interests, success rates, and licensure preparation. The following list helps students see how potential schools measure up to their needs.

  • Teaching PhilosophyDepending on their interests, it’s vital for students to research areas of emphasis within potential psychology departments. Individuals considering a clinical route should be sure their top choices are devoted to that facet of the field rather than applied psychology, and vice versa. Students who plan to use their knowledge and skills in a direct service arena should seek out programs that offer concentrations or specializations within their area of interest.
  • American Psychology Association AccreditationThe APA accredits doctoral-level psychology programs, internship programs and postdoctoral residency programs and is recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education as the national authority on standards of education. Doctoral students should ensure their list of schools are all APA-accredited, while master’s level students should look for a school with a well-respected regional accreditation.
  • Student ProfilesUnderstanding a school’s student body before enrolling will help students measure the level of a program’s academic standards. While meeting with a current student may be difficult, asking the program administrator about academic backgrounds, GPAs, standardized test scores and research focuses is a good place to start. This information will provide prospective students with insight into the rigor of the program and the likelihood of their acceptance.
  • Program SuccessData about graduation rates, average completion times and the percentage of students with scholarships or loans informs prospective students about the success of a program. Departments with high dropout rates may be unsatisfactory, while those with a large percentage of students completing their degrees on time speaks to good mentorship and advising.
  • Internship Placement and Success RatesClinical tracks typically require an internship placement as a significant component of the program. Students should try to find out how the internship process is administered, sites where students are gaining placements and how long it takes the average graduate to find a job.
  • Licensing PreparationThe Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards oversees licensing examinations and regulates the field. While the majority of states require students to hold a doctorate to receive licensure, 16 states provide some form of licensing for master’s level graduates. Students should ask how prospective programs prepare graduates for exams and what the student success rate is.

Ask a Graduate: Tips for Pursuing Psychology Degrees

Some of the best information prospective psychology graduate students can receive is from those who have gone before them and been successful in their careers. After successfully completing a master’s degree in counseling, Frank Healy has worked in a variety of academic and direct service roles. Keep reading for his insider knowledge and top tips for students considering psychology as a profession.

1
Pick the right program

It’s important for prospective students to find a master’s degree program that will provide a combination of counseling courses alongside at least one course on professional ethics, which is vital to helping pass the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) examination.

2
Focus on fieldwork

When it is time to complete fieldwork, students should pick a place that is similar to where they want to work after graduation. For example, if they want to be a therapist in an inpatient setting, pick a hospital. If they want to counsel in a collegiate setting, find out if their college counseling center takes interns. Doing fieldwork provides students with potential references when seeking employment and could even lead to a job after graduation.

3
Network

Students should make good connections with their professors and other psychology professionals when completing fieldwork. They could be the ones that supervise them when seeking licensure later on.

4
Keep your options open

Stay open to multiple possibilities of work. For example, I taught, did case management and counseled at the same time for a few years.

5
Think of alternative routes

Students can get counseling jobs in community or private mental health centers with a bachelor’s degree and no license. However, many organizations want these employees to work toward their master’s degree, and eventually licensing, while working there. This is a good thing, because most people who work in the field want to advance their careers.

6
Seek licensure

When you get your license, more options are available. Unlicensed psychologists can see clients who use Medicare insurance, while those with a license can see clients with any commercial insurance.

7
Don’t forget about the licensure exam

As candidates accumulate hours of supervised work toward their license, they should start studying for their exam. Although I did not have to take it, a few years later I borrowed a coworker’s study guide to learn more.

8
Consider specialized tracks

While still in graduate school, students should start to think about areas where they may want to specialize. These decisions often dictate the type of licensure you pursue: individuals who want to work in substance abuse pursue an LADC, those with interest in mental health counseling work toward an LPC, while those with a passion for social work aim for an LCSW.

Spotlight on Psychology Careers

Mental Health Counselors

Mental Health Counselors serve a variety of clients experiencing mental health issues in settings ranging from hospitals and schools to prisons and community health centers.

Salary range: $31,942 to $61,454

Projected growth: 19%

Marriage & Family Therapists

Marriage & Family Therapists help couples experiencing discord in their marriages to understand one another’s feelings and seek resolve. They also help their family members – often children – process emotions.

Salary range: $30,510 to $78,920

Projected growth: 19%

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists use their knowledge of human motivations and business to help companies create dynamic and productive working environments for both employers and employees.

Salary range: $51,970 to $145,480

Projected growth: 19%

Substance Abuse & Behavioral Disorder Counselors

Substance Abuse & Behavioral Disorder Counselors help their clients overcome additions to drugs, alcohol, eating disorders or other activity that harms themselves or others.

Salary range: $25,310 to $61,420

Projected growth: 22%

School Counselors

School Counselors work with children to sort through personal issues or problems at home. These professionals are dedicated to helping children find ways to not only cope, but succeed.

Salary range: $40,080 to $113,640

Projected growth: 8%

Additional Resources

With 56 divisions of psychology and topical areas recognized by the American Psychological Association, prospective students may feel overwhelmed when it comes time to pick a specialty. The following list of resources provides an overview of the field and highlights some specific areas of practice.